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Iron Maiden Buyers Guide

Arriving at a time when critics had us believing that rock was dead – supplanted by punk and its various derivations – the success of Iron Maiden in the early 1980s almost defied belief. Originally heralded as a New Wave Of British Heavy Metal band, their roots actually go back all the way back to the mid-1970s and founder, bassist and chief songwriter Steve Harris’s passion for progressive groups like Jethro Tull and Golden Earring. A decade on, however, he was the leader of the first rock band to take onboard the lessons of punk – stripping away the self-indulgence of late-70s rock – while infusing its new brand of heavy metal with a much-needed injection of youthful spirit and energy the like of which had not been seen since the earliest days of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Here is Mick Wall’s guide to their most significant albums.

The Essential Album Releases

Iron Maiden (1980)
Still fondly regarded by many first-generation long-term fans as one of the finest albums the band would ever make, the debut Maiden collection comprised eight stunning originals. Five backbone Steve Harris classics in the mighty ‘Prowler’, the epic ‘Phantom Of The Opera’, the wonderfully evocative ‘Transylvania’ and ‘Strange World’ and of course the band’s ultimate anthem ‘Iron Maiden’. Plus two Steve had written with original vocalist Paul Di’Anno: the more reflective, almost balladic (I said ‘almost’, this is Maiden, remember?) ‘Remember Tomorrow’; and the band’s first single – and still a popular encore item to this day – the stonking ‘Running Free’. There was also one rare Dave Murray original ("based on a true story”) the juddering, Zeppelin-esque ‘Charlotte the Harlot’. A more or less faithful representation of their early live set, all eight numbers had been brutally worked into shape by their years spent gigging in the pubs and clubs of London’s East End, from where the band hailed – a mark of just how immensely powerful and tempestuous those early shows were. Nearly 30 years later, the production now sounds woefully dated, of course, but it’s the only thing about this brilliant album that does. As Steve said, "We just tried to get our live sound down on tape. And I mean, it was our first, wasn’t it? So of course it’s special.” 
Di’Anno’s gruff vocals, in particular, are superb throughout. Even when he hadn’t actually written the words himself, you just knew Paul meant everyone of them. As he later recalled: "It was the best album I did with Maiden, without a doubt. I didn’t think the second album was a patch on it, personally. People go on about the production. All I hear is the band playing and me singing and how great the songs are.”
Reviewing the album in Sounds, Geoff Barton called it: ‘Heavy metal for the Eighties.” Spot on.

Piece of Mind (1983)
The first Maiden album to feature the classic line-up of Bruce Dickinson (vocals), Steve Harris (bass), Dave Murray and Adrian Smith (guitars) and Nicko McBrain (drums), Piece of Mind was also the first Maiden album to go platinum in America and remains one of Steve’s all-time favourite Maiden recordings. Indeed, the strength of the material on Piece Of Mind reflects the fact that, in master technicians like Bruce, Adrian and Nicko, allied to the gutsy, rock ‘n’ roll energy and emotion of Steve and Davey, Maiden now had all the tools they needed to stretch-out and begin to develop their early punk-metal sound into new and more elaborate musical territory. As ever, a fistful of Steve Harris originals provide the spine of the album, beginning with opener ‘Where Eagles Dare’ – cue big drum roll and panoramic guitars as Bruce launches into the parable of a sky-kissing hero symbolic of the self-reliance and inner-strength the band exemplified in their staunch refusal to sell-out and write the radio-friendly hits others of their era eventually bowed to. Then there was ‘The Trooper’ (a Boy’s Own tale of wartime derring-do),‘Quest For Fire’ (inspired by the thought-provoking movie of the same name released in 1982) and ‘To Tame A Land’ (an epic album-closer with lyrics only comprehensible to readers of Dune, Frank Herbert’s labyrinthine novel of space-age politics, love and war). In fact, the band had originally planned to call the track ‘Dune’, but Herbert had refused them permission.
Other highlights include ‘Flight of Icarus’, the first of many successful co-writes by Bruce and Adrian, (No. 11 in the UK singles chart and the first to be played on US radio), and Bruce’s superb ‘Revelations’ – its title attracting the opprobrium of neo-fundamentalist religious groups in America who accused Maiden of being Satanists. But then they would, wouldn’t they?

Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)
For most Maiden fans – including their biggest fan of all, Steve Harris – quite simply the best album they have ever made. Certainly, it was the best the classic line-up of Maiden would release. Nobody could have guessed, however, that it would also be their last. It was also their best-seller in the UK, where it not only went to No. 1 but spawned no less than three absolutely top-drawer Top 10 singles: ‘Can I Play With Madness’ (originally an Adrian ballad called ‘On The Wings Of Eagles’ before Steve and Bruce "Maiden-ised” it), the pounding ‘Evil That Men Do’ and the surprisingly catchy ‘The Clairvoyant’. Ostensibly a concept album, built on the mythical story of the title figure, born endowed with occult powers, it was also interestingly the first Maiden album to find the band’s chief writers – Steve, Bruce and Adrian – collaborating on most of the material. The result was their most integrated set of songs and their most lavish sound yet, augmented for the first time by keyboards, synthesisers and possibly even a kitchen sink at some point on the mammoth, 10-minute-plus title track.
Ironically, however, it was the first Maiden album not to do better in America than its predecessor, the US then in thrall to the new emerging sound of groups like Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth, all of whom had been inspired by Maiden. Steve Harris admitted he was disappointed. "Not so much by the sales,” he said, "you can’t argue when they give you a platinum record, it was more that they just didn’t seem to get it.”
None of which matters now. Revel instead in the spacey, Hendrix-esque ‘Infinite Dreams’, the vaulting ‘Moonchild’, and the weighty ‘Only The Good Die Young’, a fittingly salutary ending to not just the album, but the do-or-die decade in which both it and its creators had sprung.

Expand Youir Collection

Number of the Beast (1982)
The first album to feature Bruce Dickinson on vocals, following the sacking of Di’Anno for being too out of control even for Iron Maiden, it might so easily have been a disaster, the loss of their popular frontman seen by many as a sign that the game was up. In fact, Bruce’s arrival heralded a whole new, even more popular era for the band, his less punk-influenced, more Ian Gillan-esque vocals – all manic vibrato topped off with swooping, cod-operatic flourishes – providing the band with the key they needed to finally unlock the doors of commercial success in America, the only country left on Earth by 1982 where they were not yet famous. It was also the fist time the band had begun from scratch, in terms of the material, with Bruce penning what would become one of their absolute classics in the anthemic ‘Run To The Hills’, and Steve coming up with a brace of future classics of his own in the wonderfully slapstick title track itself, ‘666 – The Number Of The Beast’ and the spine-tingling ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’. Inevitably, the scaremongers were out in force, protesting about ‘Satanic’ influences, but, thankfully, again they were ignored as Maiden clocked up its best-selling album yet.

Live After Death (1985)
Recorded over two nights at California’s Long Beach Arena, in March 1985, of all the various live collections the band has subsequently released over the years, Live after Death, their first, still remains easily their best. A pristine document of the band’s all-conquering World Slavery tour of 1984-85, this was the classic line-up of the band at its absolute apotheosis. Like a greatest hits (‘2 Minutes To Midnight’, ‘Number Of The Beast’, ‘Running Free’… they’re all here and more) but even better as the band’s live versions of their best songs have always far outstripped the recorded originals, replete with the original side four taken up with a triumphant performance later that same year before a rowdy hometown crowd at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. Every band has its time at the very top of the mountain – for Zeppelin, read their classic Earl’s Court shows in 1975 – and for Iron Maiden, Long Beach in 1985 was absolutely it. Live After Death – now available again on CD and DVD – is the proof.

Somewhere In Time (1986)
After roaming ancient Egypt for the inspiration behind their previous album Powerslave, the theme this time was decidedly futuristic, with several key tracks, including ‘Wasted Years’, ‘Heaven Can Wait’, ‘Deja-Vu’, ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ and the monolithic title track itself, ‘Caught Somewhere In Time’, all reflecting earnestly from different vantage points on the brutal march of time, and how it makes victims of us all. As Adrian pointed out, "If you think about what we’d just done [the 13-month World Slavery tour] maybe it wasn’t so strange that most of the songs we seemed to come up with had something to do with time. It’s all there if you read between the lines.” Having written two of the album’s best tracks, ‘Wasted Years’ and ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’, Adrian would know. The first Maiden album to feature guitar synthesisers, the sound was also starting to become more futuristic. It also had one of their best album covers, with Eddie as rogue time-cop, half-alien, half-human, armed to his pointy teeth in futuristic weaponry; the scene, some far-flung world where, if you look closely, Steve’s beloved West Ham appear to be beating Arsenal 7-3 (a  sure sign that this wasn’t Earth as we knew it!).

Brave New World (2000)
Having spent most of the 1990s pursuing their respective solo careers, while Maiden struggled to maintain momentum with a line-up even their staunchest fans sometimes questioned, the return of both Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith to the fold in time for the Millennium was greeted with unexpected joy by Maiden fans of all ages. The classic line-up plus one (Janick Gers), anticipation for their comeback album ran high. Fortunately, the band delivered their best collection for a decade. An album to rank alongside their best, the aptly titled Brave New World found the new / old line-up firing on all cylinders on tracks like ‘Dream Of Mirrors’, ‘The Wicker Man’, and the stupendous title track itself, the first to feature what would become the slightly more progressive feel of the direction the band would explore over the coming years. As Bruce said, "The main thing was whether we would in fact be making a real state-of-the-art record and not just a comeback album. In other words, if we were back together, then potentially Iron Maiden is looking at nothing less than being the best heavy metal band in the world again. I really wasn’t prepared to compromise on that idea.” He didn’t have to.

For Die Hard Fans Only

The X Factor (1995)
The first of just two albums featuring Dickinson’s replacement in Maiden, former Wolfsbane singer, Blaze Bailey, The X Factor was greeted in Britain by some of the most scathing reviews the band had ever received. Yet it won Album of the Year awards in both France and Brazil, and helped revitalise their career in America. It remains an album with some surprisingly inspired, if somewhat gloomy moments, not least ‘Sign of The Cross’, the 11-minute-plus opus which opens the album, the fiercely pounding ‘Fortunes of War’, and the thunderous ‘Judgement of Heaven’. No, Blaze would never be quite the singer Bruce was. Nor would he be so acrobatic onstage, favouring a more static, brooding presence. But these were dark times not just for Iron Maiden but for rock in general, the mid-90s resembling the late-70s in its hurry to write rock’s obituary. Once again, however, Maiden would steadfastly buck that trend.


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